This article was updated Saturday, April 11, 2020, to reflect changes to the mandatory-mask policy first reported by PlanPhilly.
A video that went viral Friday shows what appeared to be four police officers, backed by about six more, forcibly pulling a man not wearing a face covering off of a SEPTA bus. After the uniformed and masked Philadelphia Police Department officers lift the adult man off the bus and engage in a brief confrontation, he walks away. No arrest. No ticket.
“All because he had no [effing] mask,” said a man, who himself wore a mask, at the end of the video. “He better get a [effing] mask.”
The Philadelphia Police Department said Friday afternoon that the incident began that morning with 911 calls about a disturbance on a SEPTA bus at 1100 Market Street. A SEPTA bus driver requested that the man “leave the bus several times and the passenger repeatedly refused,” said a police spokesperson.
The officers arrived and “ordered the male to leave the bus several times. The male refused, at which point the officers physically removed him,” police said.
do riders know that they might be pulled off a SEPTA bus by 10 cops for not having a mask? pic.twitter.com/NnHXJC02E8
— Philly Transit Riders Union (@phillyTRU) April 10, 2020
The video illustrates the severe implications of the short-lived mandatory mask policy, rolled out in the wake of other risk-reduction strategies implemented this week.
After a video of police dragging an unmasked man off a SEPTA bus went viral, the agency reversed the requirement that riders wear face masks and only make essential trips on the system.
“Today’s incident involving the [Philadelphia Police Department] … may be more than just a face-covering enforcement, but it has caused SEPTA to reevaluate whether riders should be required to wear a face covering,” SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel said in an email sent Friday to the transit police force. “We can no longer use a lack of face-covering or traveling for nonessential reasons as a reason to conduct police contact.”
At this point, SEPTA is urging customers to wear face coverings to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but “those who refuse will not be barred entry to the system.”
“The covering can be as simple as a shirt, bandana, or anything else someone can grab at home before they head out,” said spokesperson Andrew Busch via email. “At a minimum, these masks and facial coverings could help keep the person wearing them from spreading germs, and if everyone wears them, we would have a great deal of added protection.”
Busch said that the agency wants to avoid arrests.
SEPTA’s new Lifeline schedule, which went into effect Thursday, closed several subway stops and ceased about half of the city’s bus and trolley routes. Along with the service reduction, SEPTA limited access to stations and asked riders to wear a face-covering in accordance with CDC recommendations.
Soon, tweets began to surface of people without masks being denied access to the service.
Due to death of SEPTA employees, SEPTA cut out half their stops. I had to walk to 69th St. Its like an armed camp in there. You cannot get in the terminal without a mask on. I used a T-shirt to be able to catch the train today pic.twitter.com/kZckyjCbwv
— Mark (@mkrull1) April 9, 2020
Damn septa not letting you ride public transportation without a mask
— Luvv (@FatCuzzzz) April 10, 2020
SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch confirmed Friday that the “request” has become a mandate and riders without a face covering can be restricted from boarding their vehicles.
SEPTA police officers are tasked with engaging riders at some stations and if a passenger is non-compliant on a bus the police can remove them.
An email from SEPTA police chief Thomas Nestel dated April 8 addressed to transit police issued the new directive, but SEPTA has yet to provide an official announcement aside from a few tweets.
Hi Lamar, people not wearing a mask or cloth covering may be denied service. Any face covering can be used, such as scarfs, bandanas, handkerchiefs or even ripped shirts. ^AS
— SEPTA_SOCIAL (@SEPTA_SOCIAL) April 9, 2020
Also there have been multiple incidents of violence on the system in the weeks following the citywide shutdown including the shooting death of a man on the subway and the assault of a homeless man by a group of teens.
Nestel encouraged that officers use SEPTA’s new policies “to your advantage to guide the predators off the system.”
Yasha Zarrinkelk, an organizer with Transit Forward Philadelphia, said he is “apprehensive” about the policy because of the “potentially negative interactions it might cause between police and riders.“
According to the latest numbers, Philadelphia has 5,793 confirmed coronavirus cases and 137 deaths in the city. Over at SEPTA, more than 130 employees, including at least two police officers, tested positive for the coronavirus and at least three have died.